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Climate Tipping Points
We’re in a moment of climate tipping points, horrific and hopeful. With both sides of the story accelerating, we still get to decide which one wins out.
After a summer of climate disasters and a month of staggering, unnerving, mind-boggling, “absolutely gobsmackingly bananas” global temperatures in September, the reality of climate change tipping points is well and truly upon us.
The list of adjectives from key climate scientists was compiled by Zeke Hausfather, a research scientist at Berkeley Earth and writer at Carbon Brief. The “absolutely gobsmacking” reference was his own reaction to the September data.
It’s the story we’ve been hearing and the outcome many of us have been working to prevent for years and decades. As the atmosphere warms, key climate impacts like melting ice caps and the massive dieoff of the Amazon rainforest become irreversible, and the Earth shifts into an era of rapid, uncontrollable warming with ever more frequent and severe climate disasters.
But there’s a subplot that we have to keep in mind and keep working to amplify. The solutions to climate change are practical and affordable, and they’re finally starting to scale up.
There’s a good chance that 2023 will be the year that global carbon emissions peak before finally, finally starting to decline.
And there’s some sense that fossil companies are behaving as if they realize their final decline has begun—even if they can’t bring themselves to say it out loud, and their current, obscene profits seem to tell a different story.
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These Numbers Are Different
Writing in mid-October, Hausfather said the summer’s temperature data were telling us something new, after July and August beat previous temperature records by 0.3°C and September was an “astounding” 0.5°C hotter.
“While natural weather patterns, including a growing El Niño event, are playing an important role, the record global temperatures we have experienced this year could not have occurred without the approximately 1.3°C (2.3°F) of warming to date from human sources of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions,” he wrote for the New York Times. “And while many experts have been cautious about acknowledging it, there is increasing evidence that global warming has accelerated over the past 15 years rather than continued at a gradual, steady pace.”
All of which translates into more severe heatwaves, wildfires, storms, flooding, and sea level rise in the years ahead.
Though he’s part of a profession that necessarily focuses on decades-long changes, Hausfather cited three signals that the planet is heating up faster than before: a warming rate 40% higher over the last 15 years compared to the 1970s; faster accumulation of heat in the Earth’s oceans; and satellite measurements showing a bigger difference between the amount of the sun’s energy entering and leaving the atmosphere.
Two new studies last week drew a sharp, red line under Hausfather’s warning. But while you read about them, keep this in mind: Another piece of analysis showed us the way back from the brink.
Tipping Points and Life ‘Under Siege’
A study released Tuesday in the journal Bioscience warns that life is “under siege”, with 20 of 35 planetary vital signs like human and animal populations, losses of global tree cover and Amazon forest, energy consumption, and climate emissions pushed to the extreme. One of the report’s several co-authors was Dr. Saleemul Huq, an eminent and deeply dedicated climate scientist from Bangladesh who died Saturday. (Read on for more on Saleem’s life and achievements.)
The paper opens with these words:
We are now in an uncharted territory. For several decades, scientists have consistently warned of a future marked by extreme climatic conditions because of escalating global temperatures caused by ongoing human activities that release harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, time is up….We are entering an unfamiliar domain regarding our climate crisis, a situation no one has ever witnessed firsthand in the history of humanity.
If today’s trends and consumption habits continue, three to six billion people may find themselves in unliveable regions, facing severe heat, limited access to food, and higher death rates, lead author Christopher Wolf told The Independent. “Without actions that address the root problem of humanity taking more from the Earth than it can safely give, we’re on our way to the potential collapse of natural and socioeconomic systems and a world with unbearable heat and shortages of food and fresh water,” he said.
A day later, UN University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security warned that climate change and over-consumption have us on the edge of six interconnected tipping points that “could trigger abrupt changes in our life-sustaining systems and shake the foundation of societies,” Reuters reported. The focus of this study ranged from aquifer depletion and species loss to the risk that space debris could make future satellite monitoring of environmental impacts impossible.
“Once these thresholds are passed, the system fails to function as it normally would, and you get new risks cascading out, and these new risks can transfer to other systems,” said lead author Jack O’Connor. “We should be expecting these things to happen because in certain areas they are happening already.”
…But Emissions Could Peak This Year
It isn’t where we want to be, and there was a time when we could have prevented it. But the other big news this week was that the latest measurable results in the direction of climate stability may be just weeks away.
Each year, the Paris-based International Energy Agency publishes its World Energy Outlook (WEO), a comprehensive analysis that it modestly styles as the “gold standard” of energy modelling. The top-line message from this year’s edition was that the phenomenal rise of clean energy technologies like solar, wind, electric vehicles, and heat pumps is reshaping the global energy system, but still not fast enough to prevent a future of 2.4°C average global warming.
Further analysis shows the world’s energy-related carbon dioxide emissions could peak by 2025 at the latest, and possibly as soon as this year.
Since the 2015 Paris climate summit, “the adoption of new climate policies and the accelerating spread of low-carbon technologies has seen the growth in global emissions slowing down,” Carbon Brief writes. This year’s WEO “sees emissions peaking as soon as 2023 under current policy settings—two years earlier than expected in 2022—and falling even more steeply after the peak.”
Especially—crucially—because the energy transition is gaining speed, momentum, and impact. In a mid-October analysis, Rocky Mountain Institute strategists Sam Butler-Sloss and Kingsmill Bond pointed to eight “deadly sins” of energy analysis that explain why commentators keep missing the memo on the speed and depth of the clean energy revolution.
Even if they don’t carry the “inherent bias of those seeking to prop up the fossil fuel system in order to enjoy the largesse of its annual $2 trillion” in income.
Some of the specifics include:
• How quickly clean technologies are scaling up, leading to lower costs, higher consumer buy-in, and eventually, the kind of lobbying clout that we usually attribute to fossil companies;
• Analysis that focuses on the historical size of fossil fuel installations but misses how quickly renewable energy is catching up;
• The “spirals of descent” that will begin once big investors (finally) realize that fossil fuels are past their prime and, soon, past their peak;
• The baked-in tendency to always, unfailingly, underestimate the value of energy efficiency.
“Technology revolutions are never linear,” the two authors write. “This matters because expectations matter: we build the future that we expect.”
How Fossils Read the Future
At first glance, you won’t see any of this analysis reflected in recent investment decisions by the world’s biggest fossil companies. Earlier this month, ExxonMobil announced it was buying Pioneer Natural Resources for $59.5 billion. Its U.S. rival Chevron followed not long after with a $53-billion deal for independent oil and gas giant Hess.
The oil and gas messaging machine was quick to portray those business moves as evidence that the industry is in it for the long haul.
“I don’t think Exxon would merge with Pioneer for charity purposes, or for that matter Chevron would do that with Hess,” said Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman. “It is a testament by its own virtue that hydrocarbons are here to stay.”
“They are putting their money where their mouths are,” said Larry Goldstein, director of special projects at the industry-affiliated Energy Policy Research Foundation, described by the New York Times as a Washington non-profit that specializes in oil, natural gas and petroleum products.
But the Times linked the announcements right back to the IEA’s latest analysis. “The disconnect between what oil companies and many energy experts think will happen in the coming years has never been quite this stark,” wrote energy specialist Clifford Krauss.
An editorial in the Financial Times took the logic one step further. The two mega-mergers “are a bet that the IEA’s vision of shrinking demand is wrong, or at least a bid to position these enlarged U.S. giants among the last producers standing to meet the demand they believe will still exist by mid-century,” the paper wrote (emphasis is mine).
Australian climate finance analyst Kate Mackenzie put that in perspective this week in post on LinkedIn.
“Oil companies are not going to say ‘we think demand peak is here or may be near’,” she wrote. “Of course not! If you are selling a product facing terminal decline, you want to be among the last ones standing. But you don't want to say that the product is doomed. What would they gain from that? They might be able to foresee demand destruction, but they don't want to encourage it.”
The mergers might make sense for Exxon and Chevron, even as oil and gas demand begin to decline, Mackenzie added. But for a window on the future that fossils really see ahead, observers are looking in the wrong place.
“What indicates faith in growth is throwing money into new, riskier, and more expensive fields,” she wrote. “If you start looking at that, you'll see that there's very limited appetite, even [among] those who are declaring loudly that oil demand will grow for decades to come.”
All of which lands us in a familiar place. We aren’t yet guaranteed a win on the biggest existential threat we face, any more today than we were last week. And all is not lost, any more than it was before the most recent studies were published. It means that every step we take to drive down fossil demand, curtail fossil supply, protect natural spaces, and lobby governments for change…all of it matters more, every single day.
And as long as the last chapters of this story are still to be written, we still have the power to write them.
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Mitchell Beer traces his background in renewable energy and energy efficiency back to 1977, in climate change to 1997. Now he and the rest of the Energy Mix team scan 1,200 news headlines a week to pull together The Energy Mix, The Energy Mix Weekender, and our two weekly e-digests, Cities & Communities and Heat & Power.
You can also bookmark our website for the latest news throughout the week. work.
Remembering a ‘Towering Giant’
Today we’re marking the loss of Bangladeshi climate scientist Dr. Saleemul Huq, described by one friend and colleague as a “towering giant” advocating for climate justice and adaptation.
Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD), died at home Saturday night of a massive cardiac arrest, the Dhaka Tribune reported today. "A visionary leader who was not only the torch bearer for Bangladesh's fight against climate change but for the entire global community, his unmatched legacy will remain as a shining example for years and generations to come,” ICCCAD wrote.
A renowned IPCC scientist, teacher, and scholar, Huq was a constant presence in international climate negotiations, credited with leading the push to bring loss and damage funding and climate change adaptation closer to the top of the United Nations climate agenda. He was active in the Climate Vulnerable Forum and the Least Developed Countries (LDC) bloc, and was named one of the top 10 scientists of 2022 by the journal Nature.
Although The Mix has covered the UN climate talks since 2015, we’ve only attended three of the conferences live, and no one on our team ever had a chance to work with Huq directly. But we know his work, have cited him frequently, and will miss him as a shining light for climate action, advocacy, and justice.
Could the 'virtual power plant' model convince more Albertans to switch to solar? (The Canadian Press)
This First Nation in Alberta is fighting climate change with rows and rows of trees (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)
How a new wave of lawsuits is targeting airline greenwashing (Corporate Knights)
With El Niño expected to stretch into the winter, all eyes are on 2024 (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)
Time to treat the climate and nature crisis as one indivisible global health emergency (British Medical Journal)
More than 100 dolphins dead in Amazon as water hits 102 degrees Fahrenheit (Cable News Network)